Autism spectrum disorders (ASDs) are much more common than most people think. There are over half a million people in the UK with an ASD - that's around 1 in 100 people.

All people with an ASD can benefit from access to appropriate services - including accessible web-based services.

This page is written for web professionals who want to make sure that their site is suitable for people with an ASD.

As far as The National Autistic Society (NAS) is aware, there has been no specific research into the needs of website users with autism spectrum disorders (ASDs). This page outlines some basic principles of designing a website for people with ASDs, based on consultation with experts around our organisation, including people on the autism spectrum.

  • Autism and Asperger syndrome are both part of a wide spectrum of conditions. Just like the neurotypical (NT) population (those who do not have an ASD), not all people with ASDs have a learning difficulty or disability. The autism spectrum is far wider than the NT range, so the needs and preferences of the ASD community differ from those of the NT community. It would be impossible to meet the needs of every ASD user who goes online, but this document offers solutions that aim to make websites more accessible to the majority of users with autism.
  • Common conditions such as dyslexia and visual impairment should always be catered for when designing any website.

Using the SPELL approach

Over many years, NAS schools and adult services have developed a framework for understanding and responding to the needs of children and adults with an ASD. The acronym for this framework is SPELL (Structure, Positive, Empathy, Low arousal, Links) . The framework is useful for identifying underlying issues, such as the best ways to reduce the disabling effects of autism and provide a cornerstone for communication. It also forms the basis of all autism-specific staff training and provides an ethical basis for intervention. Here's how we applied this approach to the NAS website.

Structure

We constantly work to provide a logical navigation structure for our website, to make it as easy as possible to find information. We also provide quick links at the bottom of every page which can be open or closed, according to the user's requirements; these provide an overview of the first and second levels of navigation. We also have a full site map which helps users to understand the way the site is laid out. This is also useful for the visually impaired, who may prefer to navigate via a map.

Positive

We hope, where possible, to provide a positive reflection of autism and Asperger syndrome.

Empathy

We seek to provide an empathic approach to information provision. We have to cater for a very broad spectrum of conditions and extremely diverse audiences; from a parent whose child has just received a diagnosis and whose first language is not English to very high functioning individuals who view their ASD as a positive asset: on our Is there a 'cure'? page, the Autistic Liberation Front and similar groups give their views on 'curing' autism.

Low arousal

We have attempted to provide as clean a site as possible, uncluttered by moving text, animated images or Flash. In order to avoid overload for people with autism and Asperger syndrome, we have provided a clear route to relevant information from the front page, plus the option to browse using the personalisation feature at the top of every page which reduces extraneous information.

Links

We have a principle of creating as many links between relevant (or potentially relevant) internal pages and external websites as possible. This ensures that people find as much information as they require that is relevant to them and to their situation. However, people with ASDs can sometimes get overwhelmed by large numbers of links, so we try to follow the well-documented principle of no more than seven, and a maximum of nine, navigational links in any given section wherever that is possible to achieve.

Basic principles for best practice

The following basic principles are summarised from reports and guidelines by the EHRC, The Royal National Institute for the Blind (RNIB) and the Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI) with added comments from experts at The National Autistic Society (including staff on the autism spectrum).

Text and the use of colour

  • Use the clearest and simplest language appropriate for the site's content.
  • Ensure that foreground and background colours have sufficient contrast. This is a real problem for some people with ASDs (and some people with dyslexia). Many users find that black on white, for example, is too visually stimulating and makes the text appear to move about on the screen. A lower contrast is often requested.
  • Avoid movement on pages unless they move slowly and can be frozen. Movement presents particular difficulties for people with an ASD who dislike visual over-stimulation, as well as for people with dyslexia.
  • Use a simple sans serif font such as Verdana, as these are easier to read on screen. However, contrary to regular accessibility guidelines, some people on the autism spectrum do prefer a serif font (for example, Times New Roman) so it is worth making this available as well.
  • Ensure that text sizes can be changed.
  • Use heading sizes (<h1>, <h2> etc), not colour, to convey the importance of headings so that assistive technologies can make full sense of your content; these can be styled within your CSS.
  • Avoid blocks of italic text where possible as this is difficult to read for some people.
  • Avoid very large or very small text the equivalent of 12pt text is recommended by RNIB.
  • Do not capitalise whole sentences.

Navigation and linking

  • Reduce the number of links and ensure that genuine and necessary links are clearly identified as such. (For example, don't have too many links from the home page.)
  • Avoid site fragmentation: navigation mechanisms should be consistent (for example, in appearance and behaviour), the relative importance of different sections (across the site and within pages) should be apparent and mark-up languages should be used to indicate the structure of pages.
  • Separate links by using text or graphics so that access technology can distinguish between them.
  • Ensure that links contain enough text to be self-explanatory.

Technical issues

  • Avoid creating pop-ups and new windows without informing the user.
  • Ensure that pages work when scripts and applets are not supported (for details on drop-down menus, see the RNIB website).
  • Provide alternative text (<alt> tags) for all informative images, image-maps and hot-spots; where a graphical bullet point is used, simply use an asterisk (*) in the <alt> tag.
  • Identify headers for table rows and columns when tables are used to present data; provide table summaries using 'summary' attribute.
  • Use relative sizing and positioning (% values) rather than absolute measurements (pixels).

Legal requirements: Equality Act 2010

All websites should follow the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG 2.0) from the World Wide Web Consortium (WSC) for Level AA compliance. This will ensure that the site is in line with the Equality Act 2010. 

Equality Act 2010 - find out more

The ideal ASD-friendly website should, wherever possible:

  • Have a clean and uncluttered design
    Preferably with some light space (lots of people don't like white and find it too jarring on the eye) around the graphical and textual elements of the page.  We refer to this in terms of "low arousal" as people on the spectrum often have heightened sensory awareness. Research has shown that many people with ASDs are 'visual learners' who absorb information more readily in a visual format. Appropriate visual reinforcement of textual material can therefore be a great help to people with an ASD. The design challenge is to keep pages clear and uncluttered.
  • Use clear and unambiguous language
    There's no need to 'dumb down' your copy, simply follow the guidelines of the Plain English Campaign and the Plain Language Commission. Avoid the use of metaphors such as 'a chip on your shoulder' or 'it's raining cats and dogs' as people with ASDs may take these literally. Symbol-assisted text, sound files/screen readers, and video clips may have a place in extending the number of people who can access information.
  • Limit the number of links in each area
    Some people on the spectrum can get 'information overload' very easily.  Simply following the guidelines laid down by the results of human computer interface (HCI) research should be enough: you should have a maximum of seven and certainly no more than nine links in any one navigation section, whenever that is possible. Make things obvious as being links - don't make the user contemplate over what may or may not be a link.
  • Have no more than three clicks to get to your information destination
    The difficulty with this rule is that if you follow the rule above and have a large site, the more clicks your users have to follow to get to the information they seek. Use discretion, logic and copious interlinking with other pages of relevance to help your users find the information they need.
  • Provide different methods to find information
    Some people use the site navigation, some prefer a site map, some use the search box. Also bear in mind the point above.
  • Consider an element of personalisation
    One aspect of the autism spectrum is that a person may be unable to see beyond their own needs and may be unable to empathise with the needs of others. Any web navigational device that can more quickly guide a user to material relevant specifically to him/her will greatly enhance their website experience, reduce their frustration and make them more kindly disposed towards your service.
  • Follow existing guidelines for good practice
    See below for details.

User testing and ASDs: some ideas and advice

These guidelines were drawn up by Nomensa, website design and usability experts, when we worked with them on designing and user-testing this website.

  • Send copies of any paperwork to participants in advance. Define clearly the purpose of the research. Explain what the participant can expect to happen, and when: manage participants' expectations very carefully. Refer to this information again on the day of the testing.
  • Provide the participant with a single point of contact; ideally someone who will be present on the day.
  • Ensure that the research environment is suitable: for example, avoid anything that may be a sensory distraction. More information relating to sensory issues can be found in the resources listed at the bottom of this article.
  • Avoid ambiguous language and turns of phrase that may have more than one meaning.
  • Use images and visual cues to support text in stimuli and references.
  • Base discussions on experience and current circumstances, rather than abstract concepts: a card sort may be very difficult for some people with an ASD as they may quickly become overwhelmed.
  • Questions are best presented as defined options or closed questions: some people with ASD may find this easier.

Useful resources

 

If you are doing research into the specific user needs of people with ASDs in the web environment, we would very much like to hear from you. Please contact webmanager@nas.org.uk.